A Gallery of Artists' Biographies | Focus On

A collection of highly visual biographies that look at the lives and times of fine artists and how their masterful works were created and came to achieve public recognition.


Teachers and librarians know that if they provide students of any age with art supplies, they need only observe what happens next. Kids instinctively understand what to do when given paper, crayons, markers, paints, scissors, glue, stickers, and the like. Even very small children seem to have an innate need to create art. Some adults may be incredulous that little ones possess “artistic vision.” These grown-ups also may not realize how important it is for young children to develop those all-important small muscles in the hands and fingers; manipulating art implements allows this to happen. Making art at any age promotes creative thinking, problem-solving, visual literacy, and hand-eye coordination, and develops understanding of spatial relationships—not to mention an aesthetic sense and appreciation of color, composition, and style.

Encouraging students to create their own art is a great idea; indeed, research shows that youngsters who make art improve academically. Children also need to develop an appreciation for great artwork through museum visits and books about art and artists. Learning about the lives and personal and artistic challenges these people faced can be eye-opening and might also suggest readers’ kinship with these creative individuals. For many artists whose biographies are cited, love of art and the passion to engage in it blossomed in childhood. In numerous cases, genuine skill was evident early on; in some happy instances, parents and others recognized the young creators’ aptitudes and supported their ambitions. For others, the development of artistic talent and/or opportunities took longer; amazingly, some made their first artistic forays well into adulthood, even old age. These books tell important, inspiring stories for readers of all ages. Moreover, the nature of these artists’ works and/or their media will provide excellent springboards into students’ own creative explorations.

Elementary Grades

BENSON, Kathleen. Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews. illus. by Benny Andrews. HMH. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544104877. Gr 2-4–Dynamic, life-affirming paintings represent Benny Andrews as a “people’s painter” interested in capturing the true African American experience. Andrews’s story is uplifting and inspiring; born in 1930, he began making art in childhood, drawing upon observations of real people and life events and, later, on memories, to create elegant, idiosyncratic, and deeply personal works. BURLEIGH, Robert. Edward Hopper Paints His World. illus. by Wendell Minor. Holt. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780805087529 Gr 3-5–In a graceful narrative text, Burleigh notes Edward Hopper’s passion for art from earliest childhood. Throughout, readers are helped to understand that the artist’s atmospheric paintings raise intriguing questions. Appealing illustrations are reminiscent of Hopper’s, as Minor acknowledges the master’s influence. A few reproductions of Hopper’s works are included. EHLERT, Lois. The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life. illus. by author. S. & S./Beach Lane. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442435711; ebk. $10.99. ISBN 9781442435728. Gr 1-4–Ehlert presents a scrapbook brimming with her signature eye-popping colors, illustrations, and photos and the odds and ends she uses to create her brilliant collages. The artist explains how she finds and develops her ideas and brings them to fruition. A masterly invitation to spark students’ creativity. 1609-fo-gallery2ENGLE, Margarita. The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist. illus. by Aliona Bereghici. Amazon/Two Lions. 2015. Tr $17.99. 9781477826331. K-Gr 3–In this picture book biography, lyrical free-verse poems, presented in Louis Fuertes’s imagined voice and enriched by delicate watercolor-and-ink illustrations, embody the artist’s constant state of awe in the presence of birds. Inspired by John James Audubon, Fuertes became a painter of birds, but he immortalized them without taking their lives. The accurate bird illustrations are labeled. FRIEDMAN, Samantha. Matisse’s Garden. illus. by Cristina Amodeo. The Museum of Modern Art. 2014. spiral. $19.95. ISBN 9780870709104. Gr 1-3–The creative processes Henri Matisse employed creating his cut-paper artworks are charmingly explained. Vivid illustrations, fittingly rendered in cutout style, exude sheer joy, and three brilliant gatefolds reproduce a few of the artist’s masterpieces. For another early-grade look at Matisse, see Jeanette Winter’s Henri’s Scissors. Winter makes “drawing with scissors” exciting and incorporates her versions of some of Matisse’s cutouts. HILL, Laban Carrick. Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave. illus. by Bryan Collier. Little, Brown. 2010. Tr $18. ISBN 9780316107310. K-Gr 4–Earthy illustrations capture the painstaking endeavors of a talented, enslaved 19th-century craftsman and poet; one foldout highlights clay-stained hands. This remarkable account, based on fact, focuses on artistry, not enslavement, affording Dave long-withheld dignity. Though some pots survive, much of his history is lost. Audio version available from Recorded Books. HOPKINSON, Deborah. Beatrix Potter & the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig. illus. by Charlotte Voake. Random/Schwartz & Wade. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780385373258; lib. ed. $20.99. ISBN 9780385373265. Gr 1-4–To paint a guinea pig, Beatrix Potter borrowed a neighbor’s prized specimen. Sadly, it died after feasting on paper, string, and paste. Hopkinson’s whimsical tone is enlivened by Voake’s breezy watercolors in this “picture letter” that recalls how Potter’s early stories took shape. Also see David McPhail’s Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box. Child-appealing anecdotes and cozy watercolor-and-ink illustrations enhance this portrait. MACLACHLAN, Patricia. The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse. illus. by Hadley Hooper. Roaring Brook. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781596439481. Gr 1-4–The illustrations brighten as the text—two lengthy sentences about Henri the boy—proceeds, foreshadowing the vibrant paintings and cutouts the adult artist would produce. Given the colorful themes and patterns he encountered in youth, his development into the mature Matisse was inevitable. A dreamy quality suffuses the prose. 1609-fo-gallery3MARKEL, Michelle. The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau. illus. by Amanda Hall. Eerdmans. 2012. Tr $17. ISBN 9780802853646. PreS-Gr 3–Children’s innate fairness will have them rooting for Henri Rousseau, who was often critically reviled yet eventually succeeded. Told in present tense, this lyrical, comical tale is a cheerful introduction to an artist who “starts painting” at age 40. Gorgeous watercolor-and-acrylic paintings, excellent versions of Rousseau’s own, are filled with delightful details to savor. RODRIGUEZ, Rachel. Through Georgia’s Eyes. illus. by Julie Paschkis. Holt. 2006. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780805077407. Gr 1-4–Acrylic-print collages, teeming with vivid colors, patterns, and shapes, translate Georgia O’Keeffe’s style and reflect the openness and majesty of the desert. Enlivening the lyrical, present-tense text, the illustrations convey the idea that “paint [spoke] for her.” For O’Keeffe, beauty and wonder were everywhere—a powerful message for budding young artists. ROSENSTOCK, Barb. Dorothea’s Eyes: Doro­thea Lange Photographs the Truth. illus. by Gerard DuBois. Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek. 2016. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781629792088. Gr 2-5–Spare, heartfelt text reveals that even as a girl, Dorothea Lange believed herself an outsider. Her respectful, unobtrusive curiosity, as well as a physical impairment stemming from childhood polio, made those she captured on film feel at ease and helped her immerse herself in their world. The illustrations have a dreamy, old-fashioned quality. ROSENSTOCK, Barb. The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art. illus by Mary GrandPré. Knopf. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780307978486. Gr 1-4–Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky “heard” colors. Whimsical illustrations, even typefaces, dance and soar to demonstrate how he experienced sensory stimuli in more than one way simultaneously. The lively text clarifies that the artist painted abstractly in order to hear his vibrant colors in the most delightful, musically satisfying way. STEPTOE, Javaka. Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. illus. by author. Little, Brown. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316213882. Gr 1-4–Like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Steptoe drew inspiration from NYC streets, blending his own style with that of the 1980s wunderkind. Re-creating the famed street artist’s methods, materials, and free-spirited graffiti look, Steptoe’s paintings are robust, dynamic, and filled with color and action; his dynamic present-tense text evokes a sense of urgency. TATE, Don. It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started To Draw. illus. by R. Gregory Christie. Lee & Low. 2012. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781600602603. Gr 3-5–Considered one of the most important self-taught artists of the 20th century, Bill Traylor (1854–1949) began drawing—at age 85—while destitute and homeless in Alabama. Using rudimentary supplies, he relied on his vast store of memories to create art. Traylor’s quotes and Christie’s folkloric illustrations enrich the telling. Poignant and unforgettable. TONATIUH, Duncan. Diego Rivera: His World and Ours. illus. by author. Abrams. 2011. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9780810997318. K-Gr 3–Diego Rivera would have rejoiced at Tonatiuh’s pre-Columbian-style paintings, reflecting both artists’ love of Mexican history, heritage, and culture—and their mutual passion for blending traditional and modern artistic styles and motifs. The straightforward, informative text asks readers these questions: What would Rivera paint today? How would he depict contemporary society? TONATIUH, Duncan. Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras. illus. by author. Abrams. 2015. Tr $8.95. ISBN 9781419716478. Gr 3-6–Pre-Columbian-style art befits this account of José Guadalupe Posada, engraver of calaveras, the images of skulls and skeletons that remain iconic Day of the Dead symbols. Explanations and illustrations of Posada’s techniques, inclusion of Spanish words, and details about the holiday make this title an important artistic and cultural touchstone. 1609-fo-gallery4WHITEHEAD, Kathy. Art from Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter. illus. by Shane W. Evans. Putnam. 2008. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780399242199. K-Gr 3–Evans’s charming, mixed-media, folkloric paintings evoke Clementine Hunter’s self-taught style. A conversational tone conveys the inspirational story of this gifted woman who lived on a Louisiana plantation and made art from the 1940s to 1980s. Shockingly, Hunter was once barred from attending one of her own exhibitions. WING, Natasha. An Eye for Color: The Story of Josef Albers. illus. by Julia Breckenreid. Holt. 2009. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780805080728. Gr 3-6–The imaginative cover will draw readers in, and they’ll stay for this well-told story, enhanced by quirky illustrations, about an unusual artist whose experimentations with color interactions and squares will inspire students’ creativity. Concepts are clearly explained through diagrams and text, and five activities in the back matter will surely excite readers. WINTER, Jeanette. Mr. Cornell’s Dream Boxes. illus. by author. S. & S./Beach Lane. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781442499003. PreS-Gr 2– Born in 1903, Joseph Cornell, a reclusive salesman, lived much of his life in Queens, NY. In shadow boxes, he fashioned miniature worlds based on dreams, memories, and observations. Cornell regarded children as his primary audience, and his final exhibition welcomed a child-only guest list. Simply, sweetly told and illustrated. WINTER, Jonah. Just Behave, Pablo Picasso! illus. by Kevin Hawkes. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks. 2012. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780545132916. Gr 2-5–Bold paintings, some of which are versions of Pablo Picasso’s, complement energetic text and embody young Picasso’s defiance and adventurous creativity. Unusual design elements—e.g., Picasso bursting through a page and his steady glare on the title page and back cover—enhance reading fun and help the artist spring to life.

Middle School & Up

BURLEIGH, Robert. George Bellows: Painter with a Punch! Abrams. 2012. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9781419701665. Gr 5-8–The first-person text is as vigorous as the paintings by this early 20th-century artist who found beauty in New York City reality—tenements, city streets, and, most notably, the boxing ring. This energetic portrayal and the gritty, action-packed paintings will encourage students to scour their own environments, seeking exciting artistic inspiration in everyday life. PARTRIDGE, Elizabeth. Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning. Chronicle. 2013. Tr $50. ISBN 9781452122168. Gr 8 Up–Partridge, Dorothea Lange’s goddaughter, introduces the famed chronicler of the Great Depression in an excellent biographical essay. Compassion pervades Lange’s groundbreaking photos, taken mid-20th century. Her illuminating captions set the photos in context; some also feature commentaries taken from copious notes she recorded on jaunts around the United States and the world. PLAIN, Nancy. This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon. University of Nebraska. 2015. pap. $19.95. ISBN 9780803248847. Gr 7 Up–Exquisite reproductions from John James Audubon’s The Birds of America enrich this excellent account of the naturalist’s life, career, and techniques. Readers will come away with real respect for all that this French immigrant accomplished and what a massive undertaking his book was. Audubon was a visionary and a pioneer in more ways than one. 1609-fo-gallery5REEF, Catherine. Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life. Clarion. 2014. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780547821849. Gr 7 Up–Inextricably linked, these icons flourished together; their artistic and emotional impact on each other was enormous. This wonderful dual biography compares and contrasts the artists and explains how social, historical, and political forces influenced their lives and output. Superb reproductions of their paintings are included. RUBIN, Susan Goldman. Diego Rivera: An Artist for the People. Abrams. 2013. Tr $22.95. ISBN 9780810984110. Gr 5-8–Love of and pride in Mexican history and culture shaped Diego Rivera’s outlook on life, politics, and art. This well-written account establishes Rivera as an artist of enormous impact in his own right and includes excellent reproductions of his and other artists’ works. Attractive design elements add to the visual appeal. RUBIN, Susan Goldman. Everybody Paints: The Lives and Art of the Wyeth Family. Chronicle. 2014. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780811869843. Gr 6-9–Opening with the accomplishments of patriarch N.C., this account describes his influence on son Andrew, then establishes the impact of both artists on Andrew’s son Jamie, all among the most gifted painters America has produced since the end of the 19th century. Numerous quotes and excellent reproductions are highlights. SAY, Allen. Drawing from Memory. illus. by author. Scholastic. 2011. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780545176866. Gr 5 Up–Say embarked on his career as a young teen during World War II. Mentored by Noro Shinpei, the most renowned Japanese cartoonist of the period, he developed as an artist and person. Illustrated with Say’s marvelous drawings and cartoons, often displayed comic book–style, this is a must for graphic novel– and manga-loving readers.

goldman-carol-contrib-webCarol Goldman is Children’s Librarian at the Forest Hills Branch of Queens (NY) Library.

Digital Picks

Art for Kids Hub. Art for Kids Hub. Pleasant Grove, UT. (Accessed 7/21/16) PreK-Gr 5– Kid-friendly videos, featuring the site host Rob (Mr. Hubs) and his three children, provide instruction on easy-to-replicate art projects using various media. Searchable by category or age level. An ad-free version is available for a monthly fee. Color with Leo. Silva Animation Studio, Inc. (Accessed 7/21/16) PreK-Gr 3– A “young Leonardo” guides students through interactive games and activities as they learn the principles of art. Parents and teachers can download free lessons, activities, and coloring pages. Also includes many artists’ biographies. Exploring Leo. Museum of Science. Boston, MA. (Accessed 7/21/16) Gr 5 Up– Through extensive and fascinating online activities, students learn about the life and career of Leonardo da Vinci as well as his paintings, inventions, and scientific studies. Includes a collection of lesson plans with classroom activities. NGAkids Art Zone. National Gallery of Art. Washington, DC. (Accessed 7/21/16) Gr 4 Up– Students can explore the National Gallery of Art collections, create an assortment of artworks online, and even furnish a Dutch “dollhouse” straight out of a 17th-century painting. Also available as a free iPad app, “suitable for all age groups” but “optimized for ages 9 through 11.” Smarthistory. Smarthistory. (Accessed 7/9/16) Gr 7 Up– Cofounded by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, both former deans of art and history at Khan Academy, this not-for-profit website is an excellent, browsable resource for the study of art history and cultural heritage. Videos and essays cover art from prehistory to the present day and include numerous eye-popping close-ups of many artworks.
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Maria Gianferrari

Artist biographies are among my very favorite to read!! Here are some of my favorites: Amy Novetsky: Cloth Lullaby; Georgia in Hawaii Jen Bryant: A Splash of Red (Horace Pippin); Georgia's Bones Hester Bass: The Secret World of Walter Anderson Don Tate: It Jes Happened Photographers: Carole Boston Weatherford: Gordon Parks Barb Rosenstock: Dorothea's Eyes

Posted : Sep 30, 2016 01:36




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